Looking for the poetic beat
How do you make poetry cinematic? “Howl,’’ a new film about beat writer Allen Ginsberg, asks that question without realizing the question is backward. It should be: How do you make cinema poetic? Filmmakers as abstract as Stan Brakhage and as narratively inclined as David Lynch have spent careers working out answers to that one, struggling for a visual approximation of the language of no sense.
By contrast, writer-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman try awfully hard to make sense of “Howl,’’ Ginsberg’s epic 1955 rant against conformity. The approach leads them to grief: Well intentioned on every level, the movie is successful only on some, and it falls flat when trying to visualize the innards of the poem itself.
There are actually three movies here. In the black-and-white one, James Franco (“Spider-Man,’’ “Eat Pray Love’’) plays the young Ginsberg debuting “Howl’’ to a small, rapturous crowd at the legendary Six Gallery reading in San Francisco on Oct. 7, 1955 — the day American poetry broke free of its moorings and finally paid its debt to Walt Whitman. These sections flash back to scenes with Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi), Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott), and others in the original beat circle. Franco is very good, conveying the hunched, lucid intensity of the 29-year-old poet, the shyness and the nerve, and the Six Gallery scenes gather energy with the fervor of a righteous bebop sermon until we’re cheering him on along with the onscreen listeners.
Intercut with these scenes are restaged sequences, in color, of the famous 1957 obscenity trial against the publisher of “Howl,’’ poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers). It’s an all-star affair: Jon Hamm (“Mad Men’’) as ACLU lawyer Jake Ehrlich arguing the poem’s artistic merits, David Strathairn smirking and scowling as prosecutor Ralph McIntosh, Bob Balaban a bland, unreadable Judge Clayton Horn. Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels are cast as literary experts sniffing distastefully against the raw sexuality of Ginsberg’s verse; Daniels is especially funny as an academic version of Bob Dylan’s Mr. Jones, utterly clueless as to what’s happening here.
These are solid scenes, but because the dialogue is taken directly from court transcripts, they don’t build the way the filmmakers seem to want. Valuable as reenactment, they frustrate as drama. Still, they’re better than the film’s biggest misstep: the decision to “illustrate’’ the poem with phantasmagoric animation.
You can see the thinking here: What better way to get under the skin of Ginsberg’s incantatory verbal riffs than by leaving behind realism altogether? The artist, Eric Drooker, is a respected veteran of graphic novels and New Yorker covers; no slam on him. Yet the sequences play as kitsch — overly literalized attempts to find visual common ground with the language of poetry. The “Moloch’’ passages become a toothless cartoon version of the scenes in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis’’ that originally inspired Ginsberg. The “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night’’ become faceless jazzbos blowing saxes on tenement rooftops. Oy.
Your mileage may vary; an acquaintance of mine thought the animated scenes were the best thing in the movie. And, granted, visualizing “Howl’’ would daunt the best minds of any generation: The poem needs to be swallowed whole as a torrent of rage and joy, a simon-pure expression of one man’s thirst for spiritual and physical release using nothing but words, words, words.
Critic Mark Schorer (played by Treat Williams) probably puts it best when he tells the prosecutor from the witness stand, “Sir, you can’t translate poetry into prose. That’s why it’s poetry.’’ You can’t translate poetry into cinema, either — the medium has its own equivalents — but the filmmakers love “Howl’’ too much to stop themselves from trying. They don’t love it to death (you couldn’t kill this poem if you tried) but they do come perilously close to making it something it’s not: ordinary.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.